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The pros and cons of keeping bees

By Jennifer Stern

, |


The pros and cons of keeping bees

By Jennifer Stern

, |

4 min read

Albert Einstein, who was a pretty smart fellow, did not say: ‘If bees disappeared from the face of the earth, humans would have only about four years left to live.’ But, even though he didn’t say it, if anyone had asked him what would happen if bees disappeared, he may well have answered thus.

Okay, Einstein didn’t know much about bees, but Mark Collins does, and he estimates that ‘bees pollinate more than every third mouthful of everything we eat. Without their contribution, we would have a serious problem.’

Bees are dying like flies

That warning by whoever was happy to give the credit to Einstein is an apt and a timely one. Beehives are dying all over the world – a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD). No-one knows for sure why this is happening, but it is widely believed that pesticides play an important part. Makes sense, really, because – well – pesticides are designed to kill insects. And bees – while they are most certainly not pests – are insects.

Beekeeping 101 – beekeeping basics

Beekeeping is both very simple, and very complex. It’s simple in that – really – the bees do all the work. You just put a hive in a good spot, and the busy little workers will fly out every day gathering pollen and nectar to bring back to the hive. They turn the nectar into honey, and the pollen goes to feed the baby bees, so they grow up big and strong, and go out and collect more nectar and pollen.

But it’s also quite complicated because – like factory and office workers – bees can survive and produce in substandard working conditions, but not optimally. If it’s too hot, or too cold, or too badger-prone, the bees will be stressed, and will expend a lot of energy heating or cooling the hive, or having nightmares about badgers.

Also, it’s important that the hive is situated close to a good-quality food source – lots of lovely flowers or blossoms. Almost any sort of flower will do, but you do need to be careful that the bees are not exposed to pesticides, which is why urban bee farming is taking off, as most pesticides are used in agricultural areas. Of course, nature reserves, mountain areas or forests are ideal. Fynbos is particularly good because – and this is coming from a born-and-bred Capetonian, so please accept my bias – fynbos honey is the most delicious honey in the world.

So, if you have lots of space on your estate, you may consider putting up a few hives. Or perhaps you even have some wild bees, who might like a new, optimally designed home. That’s where Mark Collins comes in.

Environment is everything

Mark was the winner of the Popular Mechanics Inventor of the Year Award and the SA Breweries Social Innovation Award in 2014 for his revolutionary beehive design. It wasn’t hard to improve the beehive, he says, as it had not changed in design or materials since 1856. So, really, it was way overdue for an update.

Mark’s Beepak is a light, modern, stylish flatpack hive made from composite – as opposed to the traditional wood. It weighs about 30 kilograms less than a traditional hive, is insulated to stay warmer or cooler, and is completely badger-proof. The first of these qualities results in much less stress for the beekeeper, and the latter two in less stress for the bees. It’s also (relatively) fire-proof, and it can be decontaminated and reused if it becomes infected; with the old wooden hives, you had no choice other than to burn infected hives. They also give a higher yield – about 25 kilograms per hive as opposed to between 10 and 14 kilograms.

Obviously, the placement of the hives needs to be carefully thought out. Mark, who was one of the first residents at Century City, has about eight or 10 hives on Intaka Island. He chose the spot after careful thought, and long discussion with the estate management, who agreed that it was a great contribution to Century City’s sustainability programme. It’s the perfect spot for him to help relocated bees to gather strength, and to settle in to their new hives so, while there is a core community, there are some colonies that only stay there for a month or two before moving on.

Advantages of keeping bees – sweet sustainability

The advantages of keeping bees are obvious, and numerous. You will be contributing to biodiversity, and also the survival of humankind. And you can harvest lots of lovely honey, which you can sell, or use as part of your marketing strategy. Or you can stash it away for your great grandchildren because honey does not spoil, and can last for thousands of years. Seriously, archaeologists found perfectly edible honey buried in ancient tombs that were (obviously) occupied by corpses that did not need a snack on the way to the afterlife.

Disadvantages of keeping bees – the sting in the tail

The advantages of keeping bees far outweigh the disadvantages, but the fact is that there is a small chance that residents may be stung by bees. Although not having beehives is no guarantee that they won’t, because bees forage over quite a large area. At least with hives on the estate, all the residents will be aware of the possibility of meeting a bee while out on a jog. And you can always sweeten the deal with a jar of estate honey.

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